The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

July 3, 2013

Montour, Columbia mull combined services

By Karen Blackledge
The Daily Item

— BLOOMSBURG — Montour and Columbia counties will begin a study to look at ways of combining, merging or coordinating services to become more efficient and save money.

The Columbia County commissioners approved a resolution Wednesday to seek requests for proposals for the study. Montour County’s commissioners plan to approve the resolution when they meet Tuesday.

The state Department of Transportation already is doing a study of Montour’s transit system. Another study is being done of 911 systems in a five-county area.

“We have a chance to make history in Columbia and Montour counties,” Montour board Chairman Trevor Finn said.

The counties have received a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development for the analysis. Each county will contribute $6,500 toward the study. The office of state Sen. John Gordner and Gordner were instrumental in obtaining the grant.

The counties expect to award a contract by early September for a consultant to begin the study.

Although the study is expected to take five years, there could be changes before that because of the 911 centers and transit studies, Finn said. He, Vice Chairman Jack Gerst and Commissioner Jerry Ward attended the meeting of Columbia County commissioners Chairman Chris Young, Rich Ridgway and David Kovach.

Young said the commissioners met with their department heads earlier in the day, and it seemed the proposal was “very well received.”

He said the catalyst for the project probably was the jails with Montour women inmates housed in Columbia’s jail. The two counties share much already, including the same judicial district, the Columbia-Montour Chamber of Commerce, Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau and Columbia-Montour Aging Office.

“It will be a slow process,” Gerst said of the study.

Finn said the Columbia County bicentennial probably spurred the two boards to discuss how they could be more efficient. “How fitting right after the 200th anniversary,” Finn said.

Kovach said the consultant would give a nonpartisan opinion and expert advice to the counties. “The 911 technology changes every year and has become so very expensive through the years,” he said, adding that state and federal funding has been cut back.

“Both counties have been fiscally prudent with Columbia County the second lowest among Sixth Class counties and Montour the lowest in Eighth Class counties,” Finn said of tax rates. “We have dropped our budget 12 percent the past three years.”

“We don’t want to raise taxes. We are looking for ways to combine services. Both boards work together very well,” he said.

Finn commended judges in the two counties for their cooperation. Gerst praised Columbia County Chief Clerk Gail Kipp and her Montour counterpart, Holly Brandon, for their efforts.

“At least we will be able to have some control over our own destiny. It’s better to do it now,” Gerst said. “The opportunity to self-govern may pass” if the counties wait too long, he said.

“We are out front with what the state is starting to push for counties,” Young said.

Regarding 911 services, Gerst said there may be a main station and possibly a substation.

He said they wouldn’t necessarily shut down Montour’s jail. Columbia County could have a main prison and Montour may house work-release inmates, he said.

“We have been trying to get townships and boroughs to regionalize with sewer and water, and that would be hypocritical if we didn’t look the same way to regionalize,” Finn said.

“We are looking 20, 30, 50 years ahead. The area is changing. The population and government are changing. Change has to come with fiscal responsibilities. Taxes may go down or stay the same,” Gerst said.